>In the waters just off the small desert village of some 200 locals and owners of solar-powered second homes, you can find mobs of sea lions, swarms of yellow- and bluestriped grunts with big, luminescent golden groupers swimming through their ranks along with huge turquoise, blue, green and orange parrotfish, tiger and bull sharks, shoals of bigeye silver jacks and squadrons of leaping mobula rays that — photographed airborne against the sere desert hills — have become the symbol of Cabo Pulmo's 28-square-mile national marine park. In different seasons the park also attracts whale sharks, humpback whales and nesting sea turtles.
>In 1940 John Steinbeck and Monterey marine biologist Ed Ricketts (Doc in Cannery Row) sailed through these waters on an expedition later recorded in Steinbeck's book The Log from the Sea of Cortez. Sitting on the deck of their chartered fishing boat, the Western Flyer, taking notes below circling pelicans and frigates whose descendants still work the area, Steinbeck described the microorganisms of the Cabo Pulmo reef: "Clinging to the coral, growing on it, burrowing into it, was a teeming fauna. Every piece of the soft material broken off skittered and pulsed with life — little crabs and worms and snails. One small piece of coral might conceal 30 or 40 species, and the colors on the reef were electric."
>Her eyes sparkled as she recalled growing up with her father, Enrique, and brothers Mario, Paco, Kiki and Milo in the sagebrush and saguaro-cactus fishing community with its empty azure sky and star-spangled nights. But soon, as in much of Baja and the world, the sea bass, snapper and cubera were overfished and depleted, and the fishermen's livelihoods were threatened. "As a teen I'd watch them go out fishing before sunup and come back near dark without any fish; that was super sad for me, and they were losing money because of the cost of ice and gas." Soon the men had to spend part of the year away from home, fishing the Pacific for shrimp and lobster.
>"Then in the 1980s, Autonomous University of Baja California Sur scientists came to study the coral reef (the only one in the Sea of Cortez) and talked to my father, uncle and brothers and let them know about the importance of the reef and gave them dive masks to see it for themselves. From there it took 10 years to decide to protect it."
>Castro's brother Mario became a leader in making that decision, talking to others in the community and appealing to the government to create the no-take reserve. He's a short, burly and somewhat taciturn man with dark hair, a mustache, flip-flops, swim trunks and a tee. "I was the first one from here certified [as a scuba diver] in 1991," he said outside the small office at Cabo Pulmo Sport Center (also known as Cabo Pulmo Divers), the original of three dive shops now operating in town. "It's the only one still run by Mexicans," half-grouses his wiry son, David, as he strips off his wetsuit after leading a dive, exposing his shoulder tats of a manta ray and other marine life.
>Across the open beachfront from the dive shop is the ACCP's two-story cinderblock office, its entry decorated by children's paintings of sea life. Established in 2003 by Judith, Mario and Canadian activist Dawn Pier to protect the local sea turtle population, the environmental group soon expanded its aim to include protection of the marine park and community. Today Guatemalan biologist and diver Paulina Godoy heads the organization's small staff. The day I visited, Paulina was feeding her 4-month-old baby Maya while her 4-year-old son Orion and Judith's 5-year-old Yerick scampered between the office and tree-shaded yard, oblivious of the 95-degree heat. From 2009 to 2012 ACCP fought a protracted battle against a planned Spanish megaresort just up the road that was to include 27,000 hotel and condo units and that could have destroyed the reef with sediment runoff and other polluntants. With support from other Mexican and international environmental groups, they won their battle when former President Felipe Calderon cancelled the resort's permits in June 2012.
>Ecotourism dollars already have helped open a learning center for the town's kids. A big wall mural shows three mermaid girls studying while a sea turtle brings them more books on its back. On my visit I saw an older American couple rehearsing a group of 18 youngsters for a "symphony" performance of a cappella voices and percussion instruments.
>Globally, no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) such as Cabo Pulmo — particularly those created from bottom-up seaweed groups (marine grassroots) of fishermen and community activists — have proven the resiliency and popularity of ocean restoration. After all, it's doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that if you stop killing fish they tend to grow back. A study by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found the Cabo Pulmo reserve has been especially resilient, showing an astonishing 463 percent increase in its biomass (more and bigger fish) between 1999 and 2009. Yet, despite new and expanded marine wilderness parks — what ocean explorer Sylvia Earle calls "Hope Spots" (see the Spring 2013 issue of Alert Diver) — in the Western Pacific, California and Costa Rica, and campaigns to protect both Arctic and Antarctic waters, almost 2 percent of the world's ocean area today is protected from fishing, drilling and dumping. Scientists have suggested that to provide a biological reserve for the future of our blue planet we should protect 20 percent of the ocean.
>If someone were to ask why we were swimming through murky waters looking for big sharks, I'd say it was for the same reason you hope to see a grizzly bear when you visit Alaska: One, they're magnificent animals, totally adapted to their environment, and two, to paraphrase author and naturalist Ed Abbey, "If there's not something bigger and meaner than you out there it's not really wilderness." While we've learned how badly we can trash our ocean planet, it's good to be reminded we can also restore it. Cabo Pulmo's once overfished and depleted waters today are a wilderness and a wonder.
>David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, a marine conservation group. His new book is The Golden Shore: California's Love Affair with the Sea.
>© Alert Diver —Winter 2014